What is the secret to finding true bliss in alcoholism or drug addiction recovery?
Is it even possible to do so? Can anyone achieve happiness, peace, and contentment….or is it just fate that determines how happy you end up being?
I struggled to understand these questions in my early recovery as I watched others who were on their recovery journey as well. Some people seemed to be so much happier than others, and it was difficult to see what the real difference was in their approach.
So I have always been seeking to find happiness, to figure out the secret of peace and serenity, and in doing so I have been on a journey of learning over the years. I guess you could say I have been seeking wisdom! I am not sure that I am quite there yet, but I have certainly learned along the way what happiness is NOT. And perhaps that is at least the start of wisdom. I think I have a long way to go yet, but at the same time, I have learned a few things. Let me share with you what those things are.
What is the real secret of finding happiness in recovery? Hint: It is counter-intuitive
Happiness in sobriety is counter-intuitive.
That means that it is not obvious how to actually achieve it. If you try too hard to grasp on to happiness, it slips out of your hands. The harder you try to achieve happiness directly, the more it eludes you.
This is, of course, due to hedonic adaptation. The problem is that you simply adapt to whatever it is that made you happy.
And that is the key right there: If something “made” you happy, then that happiness is merely transient. It is not permanent. It will fade at some point and you will be back on the search again for more happiness. Moving on to the next thing that might make you happy all over again. It is a cycle of happiness and discontent.
This is why real happiness is counter-intuitive. We all believe that if we just had our every wish instantly fulfilled then we would be happy forever. It is very difficult not to believe in this lie that we tell ourselves. “I would be happy forever if only….” fill in the blank. Whatever goes in that blank will only make you temporarily happy, and then you will simply adapt. You will be happy in the short run, but eventually it becomes old news. You adapt. Then you search for another new carrot on a stick. It never ends.
Stepping out of this cycle of discontentment takes some deliberate effort.
And that means hard work.
The path to bliss is full of hard work and sacrifice
If you want peace, bliss, and contentment in your recovery then you need to do some hard work.
Perhaps the word “sacrifice” is a bit strong, but let me put it to you like this:
Would you rather:
A) Sit around all day and watch television, hang out with friends, and generally just enjoy yourself,
B) Work with your sponsor or a therapist on setting new goals, changing old behaviors, and get honest with yourself and others about the work that you need to do in life. Then actually take real action and do that work, be persistent, and push yourself hard to keep improving yourself and your life?
Which one sounds like it would be more fun to do right now, today? Obviously option A where you sit around and relax.
Option B, on the other hand, is a lot of hard work. And it is really uncomfortable to get honest with yourself and with others. No one wants to do these things if they can avoid them. No one wants to expose themselves, to get honest, to take those risks and become vulnerable if they can avoid it.
And yet this is the path to peace, contentment, and happiness.
You may be saying to yourself: “But that is not fair! Why can’t I just relax, take it easy, and live a better life simply by avoiding drugs and alcohol? Why do I have to do the hard work, or push myself to improve in various ways?”
The reason for this is tricky. It is because in recovery, in order to find real peace and contentment, you do not have to chase after happiness.
No, instead of chasing happiness in recovery, you need to do something else that is much more urgent for your happiness.
You need to avoid misery.
Is there a difference? you might wonder. What is the difference between chasing happiness versus avoiding misery?
Let’s dig a bit deeper here as this is a really important concept to understand.
Will I ever stop being miserable, let alone be happy or blissful?
Everyone gets to addiction recovery with some sort of past, with some sort of baggage, with some level of guilt, shame, resentment, anger, self pity, or something going on inside of them.
Every single alcoholic and drug addict has some (or all) of those things brewing inside of them. It is impossible not to.
Those things, those negative things that live inside of your mind like anger, guilt, shame, and resentment–those things are what keep you miserable. They fuel your misery and they are part of what fueled your addiction.
Even if your addiction started for different reasons–for example, say that you started taking painkillers after an injury or an accident. You started taking painkillers and for reasons unknown you simply became addicted to them. You were not seeking to medicate your emotional pain when that injury occurred and you ended up taking Vicodin every day.
The alcoholic may not have been trying to cover up their anger or fear or their guilt or their shame when they started drinking a bit too much each day. None of us started out that way necessarily in trying to self medicate those negative emotions.
But what happens over time in addiction is that we get used to having those negative emotions medicated. So we all have some negativity inside of us, whether that is in the form of anger, fear, shame, guilt, self pity, or what have you. Everyone has at least some form of negativity inside. And when you get addicted to drugs or alcohol you start to mask that pain over time, you mask the emotional pain, you use the drugs or the booze to medicate away that fear, that anger, that shame, or that guilt. The drug removes it. You can forget about it all for a while.
And that is really nice! I know this is true, because I did it myself. When you are using your drug of choice all of that negativity floats away. You forget about your fears for a while. Everything is suddenly right in the world when you are drunk or high. That’s why we get addicted.
So when you get clean and sober, suddenly you are no longer self medicating those negative feelings inside.
But they are still there.
Now some of us will have more issues than others, and that is fine. But realize that everyone has something going on inside. Every single human has some amount of those negative emotions inside, and if you have been addicted to a drug or to alcohol for any length of time then you can bet that the addiction itself has brought along some feelings of negativity. For example, most alcoholics and drug addicts blame themselves for their addiction and think of themselves as bad or selfish people. In other words, because of our addiction and our behavior, we beat ourselves up inside.
So regardless of who you are or what your specific addiction or circumstances are, you can be sure that every recovering alcoholic and addict who sobers up has some misery in their lives. They have some sort of negative emotions inside that keep them away from happiness.
This is critical. Forget about chasing your dreams for a moment. Forget about chasing after your happiness directly. Forget about trying to make yourself happy, and realize that there is a much more immediate goal in early recovery.
That goal is to eliminate the misery.
Your new goal in early recovery is to fix the negative. To eliminate the garbage that is poisoning your mind. To eliminate resentment, guilt, shame, self pity, anger, fear, and so on.
All of those negative emotions have the power to keep you away from happiness and contentment.
Think about it:
Even if you chase after your happiness and achieve it directly, you will still be miserable if you have those negative emotions running in the background.
So you don’t find happiness in early recovery.
Instead, you eliminate misery.
Take a close look at those 12 steps in AA, and realize that they are essentially designed to do exactly this: They are set up to find your character defects and then to fix them. To eliminate them. So that you are not miserable and holding yourself back from happiness.
Of course you don’t necessarily have to work through the steps in order to do this sort of work. You can do it through other means as well. But most people will probably need some advice, some input, some guidance along this journey.
Building the sort of life and existence where happiness can happen on its own
You don’t force happiness to happen.
Instead, you design a better life for yourself. Then you allow happiness to happen on its own.
If you try to force it then it will remain elusive.
How do you do this?
First, you follow the advice given above about fixing the negative, about eliminating the misery in your life.
Let’s say for example that you go on one of those meditation retreats for a weekend where you sit in silence for a long time. Maybe in doing that you will realize that a lot of negative stuff surfaces that you don’t necessarily want to think about. But it persists, and you are forced to deal with it.
So then you might ask for help. You come home and ask your sponsor or therapist to help you work through a certain issue, one that is creating negativity in your mind.
This is about doing the work. Of course you have to be willing to do that work.
Notice in the above example that the first step is awareness. You have to become aware of the problem before you can even try to fix it. And you may not need a weekend meditation retreat in order to do that. Maybe you just need to listen to yourself a little better, or to ask for feedback from others. Or perhaps you do need to slow down and meditate for a while in order to see those issues start to surface.
At any rate, you need to recognize the problem before you can deal with it. Then you need to take action and fix the problem. Most of us won’t know how to do that directly without asking for help at some point. This is why we need other people to help us recover. You can’t do it alone because you lack the knowledge to conquer every single problem that you will ever face in recovery.
Happiness and contentment comes from a life that you design based on health. In order to truly be happy you have to be healthy. Not just healthy in a physical sense, but healthy in all of the ways that a person can be healthy: Physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
Now here is the critical part:
If you are unhealthy in any one of those five areas then it will have a huge negative impact on your life.
So you cannot just say “I am going to work really hard on my spirituality” and expect for that to create peace and happiness in recovery. That might not be enough because you might be neglecting other important areas of your health.
No, in order to build the sort of life where happiness can occur, you need to take care of yourself in all five of those areas on a daily basis.
Every day, you need to ask yourself if you are taking the right actions in order to be good to yourself. In order to take care of yourself. In order to be healthy and happy in all of those different areas of your life.
Your health is the currency of recovery. Without your health in all of those different areas then you will not be happy and it may even drive you to relapse.
The secret to happiness in recovery is really two key principles:
1) Eliminating unhappiness (by doing the work in recovery), and
2) Holistic health. You need to take care of yourself every day, in every way.
If you fail to do either of these things then you open up the door to discontentment.
If you are not content then you are not happy.
If you are not at peace then you are not happy.
Therefore we must seek peace and contentment before we can build the sort of life in which happiness will occur naturally.
In order to seek peace we have to eliminate our inner demons. We need to do the work in recovery to eliminate shame, guilt, fear, anger, self pity, and all of those other negative emotions. It is not that we have to be perfect and never have a moment of negativity, it is just that we cannot allow ourselves to hang on to anger, to live in fear, to use self pity as a regular coping mechanism, and so on. When we cling to those negative emotions and use them on a regular basis then we block ourselves from happiness. Of course you might get angry in the future one day. Of course fear will happen again for all of us. We are not perfect. But if you cling to those negative emotions or use them every day then it will block you from contentment and happiness.
In order to seek contentment in life we need to be healthy. Not only do we need to keep our physical bodies healthy (nutrition, sleep habits, eliminate addictions, exercise, avoid disease, etc.), but we also need to be healthy emotionally, socially, spiritually, and mentally. If our health is suffering in any of those areas then it can block our contentment and ultimately our happiness as well.
Seek not happiness, but to improve your life and your life situation
So what I have learned is that I should not seek happiness directly.
I can’t say “If I achieve X, then I will be happy.” That doesn’t work. That is the same thing as taking drugs or alcohol and expecting the high to last forever. It never lasts. Eventually you always crash back down to reality.
Instead, I need to say “I want to improve myself in this way.” Or I need to say “I want to eliminate this negative emotion from my life.” Or “I just recognized this new character defect, and I think I would be a better person if I work on eliminating it.”
Those are not the path of instant happiness, of course. Instead they are the path to improving yourself as a person. In order to live a life of contentment you have to first lay a strong foundation. In order to be content you have to eliminate the negativity.
These things can be counter-intuitive. This is why the newcomer in recovery has to have trust in their sponsor. The sponsor is telling them to do the work, and the newcomer doesn’t not yet see how doing that work will ever result in happiness. But because they are desperate for change, hopefully the newcomer will do the work anyway. Then one day they can look back and see how doing that work allowed them to become a better person, to build the sort of life in which they could not be so miserable.
You cannot just say “I got sober last Tuesday and I want to be blissful by tomorrow!”
If you are demanding results that quickly then they will never materialize.
Instead, you have to be willing to put in some real work. Make a commitment to the idea of personal growth, to the idea of self improvement. It will take time for you to heal your life. But you will heal if you are willing to do the work, if you are willing to get honest with yourself, and if you are willing to put in a serious effort.
Taking advice from other people is generally not our idea of a good time. It takes real guts to get humble, to get honest, and to make yourself vulnerable. But this is exactly what you need to do in early recovery in order to set a good foundation for future sobriety.
By being willing to do the work you will embrace the process of recovery. Personal growth is your long term goal. Improving yourself over time will give you a strong foundation where real happiness can then occur.
And ultimately you will seek contentment and peace, because you know that happiness will follow naturally when it wants to.
What about you, have you found ways to become blissful in recovery? Is it similar to the process I described above, or different? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!